Adjournment Motion Speech “Providing Housing for Single Unwed Parents and their Children” by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC on 2 September 2019.
Introduction: 22 years of speeches
Sir, for over 20 years, the voices of the single unwed parents have been heard in this House. Members have spoken with passion about the challenges facing single unwed parents and their children.
Members shared their concerns about how it is the innocent children who would suffer from their continued exclusion from society by discriminating against single unwed parents.
We all agree that intact families are ideal, but as members have previously raised, we live in an imperfect world. The single unwed is very often a victim of circumstance.
In examining the inequality faced by a single unwed parent, members, including myself, are not advocating for any extra assistance above and beyond what a couple receives. We merely ask that we not discriminate against a single unwed and his or her child, and that we treat them equally and with dignity.
Members have shared that a 2004 Cornell study concluded that children of single parents can do as well as children of dual parents, if the single parent is able to provide a sufficiently supportive environment. Withholding support from an unwed parent could end up disadvantaging the child.
8 years ago, a member asked and I quote, “Is the Government looking at the unintended negative consequences that result from the policies affecting single unwed parents? Are we examining the policies to see if there is an effect on the health, development and social mobility of the child?
Are we looking to see if inter-generational poverty is more likely to result? Do we care more about a set of stated principles or do we care more about the effects on our citizens?
If the Government wants to discourage the incidence of single unwed parents, there are much better ways that do not have such negative consequences.”
What about housing for single unweds? Sir, 13 years ago, another member already raised concerns stating that this policy of not allowing single unweds to rent HDB flats on their own is an outdated policy.
22 years ago, another member posed this question in this House, “Does it therefore become morally justifiable to deny an unwed mother and her child public housing, say, a rental flat? Unwed mothers are not criminals. If denied public rental flat, what is their choice? The problem really is that unlike, say, London or New York, there is no large stock of affordable private housing for those who are deemed ineligible to qualify for public housing.
There is no real free market in the supply of public housing. We therefore have to really be careful when we turn people out and ask ourselves where they will live.”
A step forward for single unweds
22 years later, I’m glad that things have improved significantly. The Government has listened and responded positively.
Just like married mothers, unwed mothers now have the full 16 weeks of Government-paid maternity leave. Their children also qualify for a Child Development Account (CDA).
Housing for single unweds under 35 years old
These are significant steps forward to level the playing field but this playing field remains unlevelled as amongst several other issues, we have not resolved the issue of housing. Single unweds and their children need a roof over their heads.
We should look especially at single unwed parents under 35 years old. Those 35 years old or above can qualify for public housing under the Singles Scheme so we know they have a way out there.
I also understand that in 2017, single unwed parents age 35 years old have a median salary of $3,100 and those 36 years old and above have a median salary of $3,500.
In stark comparison, single unwed parents under 35 years old have a median salary of only $600 in 2017. Their median salary has hardly changed over the years. It was $500 in 2013, $600 in 2014, $700 in 2015 and $600 in 2016.
We need to ask ourselves what options does a parent with a newborn and earning only $600 a month have?
They clearly cannot afford alternative housing options and they are then left with one last option, which is to stay with their family members. I agree with that and we all wish that it happens.
Last month, I filed a Parliamentary Question asking the Minister for National Development whether HDB will, deciding not just on a case-by-case basis and without receiving an appeal, allow a single parent and his/her child to get a HDB rental flat when the duo cannot afford alternative housing options and will otherwise have to share a bedroom with existing family members in the family members’ home or stay in the living room because they have no spare rooms available.
The reply was “Yes” they qualify.
I left Parliament elated that evening. Happy that single unwed parents with no to other available options could qualify for a rental flat. The happiness was short-lived.
At my Meet-the-People Session that evening, Mary (not her real name) came to see me. She is a single unwed with a 5-year old child. Both her parents have passed on and she was staying with her daughter in the living room of her sister’s flat. She was able to earn only about $300 a month as she had to look after her daughter.
She called HDB. She was told she and her daughter do not form a family nucleus and as such she did not qualify for a rental flat. They did tell her she can apply but imagine the amount of anxiety a person desperate for a roof of their head faces when told that you are ineligible for a rental flat.
I have sent HDB an appeal letter for her and I hope HDB will consider her appeal favourably.
Why must it be on a case-by-case basis for all?
Sir, Mary is not alone. Only about a third of rental applications submitted by single unwed parents to HDB are approved.
MND had previously said that “In relation to meeting the housing needs of children with single parents, a range of government agencies work together to ensure that no child is without adequate housing, regardless of whether his or her parents are single or married”.
I’m glad that HDB has provided housing to single unweds under 35 years old and their children. But this is only on a case-by-case basis. Why?
We all understand the rationale of a case-by-case review. We want to be careful. But what we are doing is adding stress for people who already feel they are at the end of the road.
Let me share another story of a single unwed whose extreme struggles were worsened by the stress and uncertainty of our housing policy.
I met Ema (not her real name) at my MPS last year. She is a single unwed mother and when I met her, her daughter was only 2 months old. They were both living in a shelter when they came to me for help.
Ema is one of the most resilient person I’ve met. She had to be. She is a living example of how housing has been a stress all her life.
From the age of 5 to 15, she grew up in a children’s home. She was returned to her father for a short time before he disappeared from her life. She managed to stay with some relatives, but eventually had to move out because of tensions that come with staying in a home that does not belong to you.
At the age of 27, Ema had a child out of wedlock.
Ema tried to apply for a rental flat and was told to see an MP for help. She also got help from her social worker. Even her baby’s doctor wrote a letter for her stating that, “As she (the baby) is currently staying in a shelter, she is frequently in contact with other residents who are unwell and hence predisposed to recurrent infection. As such, it will be greatly appreciated if the application for the HDB rental flat can be expedited.”
Ema did not shed a tear when she told me her story and I asked her why. She told me she no longer had any tears left. She was not asking for sympathy. She was simply looking for a roof over her head for her baby and herself.
I appealed to HDB to allow her to rent a flat and I’m glad the appeal was successful.
HDB replied that, “We are pleased to inform you that we have obtained special approval for you to rent a 1-room flat with your daughter on compassionate grounds.”
I’m glad the appeal was successful but the whole process was extremely stressful for Ema who had a newborn, had no income, had no family members to help her, was living in a shelter, which made her baby sick frequently. And she had to seek help from three separate sources.
Shouldn’t cases like this be a straightforward yes for a rental flat application rather than on a case-by-case basis?
I think single unweds and their children will also feel a strong stigma attached to them when they can only get a roof over their heads through special approvals on compassionate grounds.
As a member had previously raised, I too question the logic where a divorcee with a child, a widower with a child, and even two orphaned siblings can be considered as eligible to apply for a flat from the HDB, but not a single unwed parent with his or her child. Why?
Sir, surely there is some set of objective standards by which we can say, “Yes, you qualify for a public rental flat.” Is there really a case where an unwed parent with no income, no assets and no family support should not qualify for a public rental flat?
And so, this is my first request: We should create and publish a set of eligibility criteria under which a specific group of single unwed parents under 35 years old can apply and get a rental flat without needing a case-by-case review or appeal.
Since 2014, 380 single unwed parents have been successful in their application for a rental flat. This means HDB should have enough data to identify clusters of people like Mary and Ema who undeniably need rental housing.
For other cases, we can still rely on a case-by-case review. But let’s start by providing a sure “Yes” to those who we know definitely need our help.
My second request is about the language we use. When single unwed parents do get approvals, I hope that HDB will no longer state that the decision was a “special approval” based on “compassionate grounds”. Can we like all other applications, simply state that their application has been approved?
My third request is that we specifically state on the HDB website that a “Single unwed and his or her child” can apply, not guaranteed, but can apply for a rental flat.
My fourth request is that our frontline officers be updated and no longer tell single unweds that they are ineligible for a rental flat. Instead, they tell them that like all other Singaporeans, they can apply if they meet the eligibility criteria stated on the website and HDB will access their application like all other applications.
Let’s make sure they don’t feel discriminated against.
My fifth request is that we introduce a scheme for“Single unwed under 35 years old and his or her child” to buy a 2-room flexi flat from HDB similar to other schemes like the Orphans Scheme or Joint Singles Scheme where there is a set of criteria one has to fulfill to apply for a flat.
In the past four years, there were 121 requests from single unwed parents under 35 years old to apply for purchase of a 2-room flexi flat. Only 28 requests were accepted. The other applicants were assessed to be able to stay with family members.
If we told any Singaporean that they were not allowed to buy a HDB flat as they could stay with their family members, I am quite sure there would be a huge public uproar. Why then do we do this to the single unwed parents?
Do our policies work?
Sir I understand that MND is mindful “not to undermine the prevailing social norm of parenthood within marriage” when helping unmarried parents.
But this current housing policy does not prevent children being born out of wedlock. I understand the intent of the policy but we really need to question whether it works.
I have met a lot of single unweds and many did not plan to have a child out of wedlock. It was the heat of the moment and they got pregnant.
In the heat of the moment, just before they have sex, nobody would stop and think, “Wait if we do this and get pregnant and don’t get married, we won’t be able to get a HDB flat. Let’s not have sex.”
All of us sitting here know that this will not happen. We have a policy that will not work.
The only time when an unwed parent feels the impact of the policy is when he or she has a child and are looking for a roof over their heads.
The message that we are telling the single unweds is that they should get married. But do we want to force a couple to get married so that they can have a roof over their heads. What kind of a marriage would that be? Is this really in the best interest of the child?
There is another way out for the single unwed, which is to get married and then file for a divorce subsequently and get sole care and control of the child. They would then qualify for HDB housing. This really doesn’t make sense.
In fact, the single unwed and his or her child who previously did not qualify for public housing, will now not only qualify for public housing but get priority to buy a flat under the ASSIST scheme.
I know the Government is also concerned that if more help is given to single unweds, we will have a sudden increase in the number of single unweds.
But this has not been the case, since we provided the 16 weeks of maternity leave and the CDA to single unweds and their children, there has not been an increase in the number of single unweds. In fact, there has been a decrease.
There was also no public uproar when we extended these benefits to single unweds and their children.
Lastly, there might be concerns that people will have a baby just to get an HDB flat. Honestly, while they might be some who would do this, members of this house will agree with me that the vast majority of people will not have a child out of wedlock just to get a HDB flat.
Our policies should cater to the majority and we should not let the majority suffer because of what we feel the minority might do to game the system.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that there are children involved here. There might be arguments about what the single unwed should or should not have done and how they should face up and bear the consequences of their actions.
But the child is innocent and the child needs a roof over his or her head. The child needs a parent who is less stressed.
Sir, I have spent the last 4 years speaking up for single parents, filing PQs, during Bill speeches, budget cuts and filing a parliamentary petition.
Honestly, my wife is getting a bit worried as people now come up to me on the streets to ask if I’m a single parent. At a recent meeting with a social worker to discuss about help for single parents, the social worker was so sure that I was a single parent since I spoke up so much about this issue.
Let me assure everyone that I’m happily married with 3 beautiful kids and I don’t intend to become a single parent.
But I do not need to be a single parent to understand the difficulties they face, the stigma they endure and the struggles they go through each and every day.
Single unweds are not asking for more benefits. They are asking that they and their child, all whom are Singaporeans, be treated equally.
In conclusion, I hope that we can:
Let me end with a quote as always:
“Being a single parent is twice the work,
twice the stress and
twice the tears
but also twice the hugs,
twice the love and
twice the pride.”
I’m here to stand up for single parents and salute them for all they are doing for their children. I hope members of this House will join us and that our policies will continue to change.
Sir, I’m not the first MP to speak up about this but I certainly hope that I will be the last MP who has to fight to level the playing field for single unwed parents. It’s 2019, it is time to level this playing field. Thank you.
Watch the speech here
Watch response by MND here